THORNS PUNCH TICKET TO FINALS
For several reasons, the Portland Thorns' win last weekend over the Orlando Pride was big beyond the prize — a spot in
Saturday's National Women's Soccer League championship match.
The 4-1 victory came against an Orlando team that surged into the playoffs with one loss in 12 games. This triumph was 53 weeks in the works, a project
fueled by the 2016 semifinal loss to Western New York.
"All year it was our focus to not only host a playoff game but then win it," team captain Christine Sinclair says. "A statement from us. Orlando, they haven't lost for a long time. Amazing team performance."
There is one more hurdle to clear to fully vanquish the memory, and the hurdle is the club that delivered the 2016 disappointment.
The Thorns and the North Carolina Courage will meet Saturday in Orlando, Florida. The match will be shown on Lifetime starting with pregame festivities at 1:30 p.m.
Portland punched its ticket to the final with its 11th win in 13 matches this season at Providence Park.
North Carolina — relocated from Rochester, New York, and the team that inflicted last season's heartbreak — reached the final by defeating Chicago 1-0 in the semifinals.
The Thorns won their last eight home games this season, including a 1-0 victory over the Courage on July 15. Portland used a familiar formula in the semifinal victory: Start with incredible energy, force the opponent to play from behind, then be the stronger team late in the game.
The four goals were quintessential Thorns:
• It started with the cross from Meghan Klingenberg that Amandine Henry converted for the first goal.
"If we could draw up a Thorns' crossing situation from that wing, that's it," coach Mark Parsons says. "That has been practiced, trained and hammered in week on week on week. If there's no space there, then it's a different kind of ball and a different type of run."
• Next came Portland's 15th goal from a free kick or corner kick this season, delivered by Tobin Heath and headed by Emily Sonnett. The answering goal 11 minutes later from an Orlando corner kick was only the second time this season a Thorns opponent has scored from a restart.
Those numbers are a reflection of the focus that first-year assistant coach Rich Gunney puts on set-piece execution.
"Rich has taken us to a new level of attention to detail. And he keeps up with not only what our strengths are but with the trends in the league," Parsons says.
• Orlando pushed and pushed for the tying goal, but Portland finished off the Pride with Hayley Raso sprinting behind the defense to finish a well-played pass from Lindsey Horan. Sinclair then capped a wonderful home season for the Thorns, scoring the fourth goal thanks to a well-placed pass from Nadia Nadim.
Including the playoff win, the Thorns were 11-1-1 at home this season. They outscored all guests, 28-9.
Parsons calls that record "mind-blowing."
"We've been able to really imprint our style of soccer, our personality at home. And I think when we play with our personality, and our energy, it's hard for any (opposing) team."
Before Parsons took over last season, the Thorns were 17-10-6 in home matches. In those 33 games, they had scored 64 times but allowed 47 goals. In Parsons' first two seasons in Portland, the Thorns are 19-3-2 at Providence Park and have outscored all foes, 54-21 (including two goals against in overtime of the 2016 semifinals).
• Those numbers reflect an emphasis on defending. Orlando coach Tom Sermanni praised Portland's defending after the semifinal match.
"Sometimes you can analyze things to the nth degree. I just think Portland's defending was terrific," Sermanni said. "We tried to break them down, tried to get wide in good crossing positions. They always had bodies there to block things. Their one-on-one defending made it difficult for them to get beaten."
• Parsons believes the home-field magic goes beyond the world's best attendance for women's soccer — 18,193 attended the semifinal — and is a result of a sense of shared passion between the players and their fans.
• Heath started the semifinal match on the left wing and played 80 minutes. It was her first start of the season and it appears the U.S. women's national team standout is rounding into form at the right time.
Parsons says they have treated the last month for Heath like they would a preseason for any player. He says it is easy to integrate Heath into the lineup, even at this late stage of the season.
"She's a good player, but she's a great, great person. She knows this club better than anyone," Parsons says. "She knows what I'm trying to do. She knows these players. She knows the system. She's very comfortable."
• The Thorns made the return to Portland uncomfortable for Alex Morgan. Morgan got free behind the defense one time early in the second half, but her shot from an angle went well wide. Neither Morgan nor five-time world player of the year Marta had a shot on target.
"Especially with someone like Marta it's a team effort. She goes everywhere on the field to try to get involved," Sinclair said. "We knew that wherever she was, if she was in your zone she's yours and to not make it easy. We completely shut her down.
"And the same with Alex. She was on the ground a lot in the game. That was our goal: To make it an uncomfortable environment for them to play in, and I think we did that."
The trade that sent Morgan from Portland to Orlando prior to last season was an interesting subplot to the match. Players in Portland thanks to the trade had a significant impact.
Emily Sonnett, taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 college draft, shadowed Morgan all afternoon and scored a goal. Klingenberg and Horan, two players acquired in that trade, each had an assist and helped shut down the visitors.
Morgan played in 38 games and scored 15 goals for the Thorns between 2013-15 and helped Portland win the first NWSL championship in 2013.
"It was great being in the city, but I don't love playing on this turf field," a disappointed Morgan said. "It was nice playing in front of 18,000 fans though. Regardless of if they're cheering for or against you, it's always great to see that turnout."